In comments, readers hold us accountable

I really enjoyed Jack Murtha’s piece in CJR today about how audience engagement editors are guiding online discussions. It covers a lot of the kind of work I do and also touches on some familiar tensions in newsrooms about how audience contributions do or don’t influence the traditional journalism.

I especially appreciate this lovely description of the job.

(Audience engagement editors) are the children of the copy editor, the public editor, and the paperboy. Instead of grammar and style, this new breed of editor crafts online tone and relationships with readers. Web traffic and, if subtly, advertising dollars depend on their work. Together, their efforts help tear down a perception that the media is declarative and deaf to how readers interact with its work.

I want to contribute a reason I love online comments and encourage my newsroom to invest in them: They help make our journalism better, and they are evidence that we’re being genuinely responsive to the information needs of the people we aim to serve.

We should want questions and ideas from readers, right? Even when they make us do more work?

Here are two examples of really constructive comments from my newsroom’s readers just last week.

One story got two follow-up questions that led to additional reporting from the two reporters. One of the reporters replied with detailed answers to both readers. Here’s what eager readers want to know about golf carts in Columbia. 

On another story, a reader actually questioned something we let a source get away with saying. After a shooting at a VFW, a source told us this:

Bart Belgya, 70, sat at the bar Tuesday and smoked a cigarette. The Vietnam vet said he didn’t think the shooter would have the guts — though he used a more colorful term — to come back when veterans were around. All the veterans are expert marksmen here, he said, and all know how to handle a situation with a gun.

But one of our frequent commenters questioned it:

That assumes that one or more of the veterans is carrying. Does the VFW allow its members to carry weapons in the building? It wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t.

It turns out they don’t allow guns — information our reporter learned and shared when prompted by the comment to follow up.

That’s readers holding us accountable. It’s commenting gold.

From idea to distribution: Teaching an expanded life cycle for a community story

This is a version of a talk I gave this morning at the Green Shoots in Journalism Education event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Appropriately, a lot of what we teach in journalism school is about the craft of gathering information and telling stories.

But too often missing is a discussion of who it’s all for.

  • Who wants it?
  • Who is it helping?
  • Who will seek it out?
  • Who will pay for it?
  • Who gets to decide what “good journalism” is?

If we want a future full of relevant, well-funded journalism, we have to be teaching students to ask those questions.

We can’t work in a vacuum, publish, then pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next story. We need a plan to:

  • aggressively reflect a community’s priorities and voices
  • identify the audience for what we do
  • invest in bringing audience and content together
  • track what works so we can continually experiment and improve

My Participatory Journalism class makes up my staff at the Columbia Missourian newspaper. And our task as the paper’s community outreach team is to ask and answer those questions on behalf of our product and our newsroom. We work to infuse audience-focused philosophies into our newsroom’s processes and products.

What I’d love to see is a journalism curriculum that infuses this focus on audience into all our classes. I’d like there to be no need for a Participatory Journalism class or a community outreach team. We all need to focus on making journalism that the audience wants and finding the audience for the journalism we think is important.

Here’s an example of what that looked like for a package of stories that my newsroom published a couple of weeks ago. Click through the slides, or watch me explain them during an 8-minute presentation.


Related posts:

This concept from The Guardian still motivates me to think broadly about the life cycle of a story.

Here are questions I think journalists should be asking for more audience-focused reporting.